by Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen)
This is from a talk given at a conference sponsored by the Northern California Brotherhood of Orthodox Clergy and held at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2006.
3. Bearing Witness To The Gospel
Now that we have looked at three prerequisites to preaching the Gospel in the modern world — knowing the Gospel, living the Gospel, and knowing the modern world — we can now go on to discuss how to preach the Gospel.
In preaching the Gospel, we should not take the in-your-face approach that is occasionally found among Protestants. Sometimes Protestants will place pressure on people to convert. Perhaps this stems, at least in part, from the Calvinist doctrine that denies free will — even though most Protestant churches have rejected the strict interpretation of that doctrine. In any case, the Orthodox approach in preaching the Gospel is, contrary to Calvinism, to honor a person’s free will just as God honors it. Our task is simply to bear witness to the Truth, and to make it available to others. Each person must make his own choice, without any coercion, as to whether or not to become a member of the Orthodox Church.
What does it mean to bear witness to our Faith? In one of the talks he gave toward the end of his life, Fr. Seraphim Rose said:
“Once we are learning of the Orthodox Faith, we must be ready, as the Apostle Peter teaches, to give an account of it to those who may ask (cf. I Peter 3:15). Nowadays there is no one who is not asked at some time about his Faith. We must make our Faith something deep, conscious, and serious, so that we ourselves know why we are Orthodox — and this will already be an answer to those outside the Faith.
“And further, in our times of searching, we should be on the watch for those who are searching. We should be prepared to find them in the most unexpected places. We should be evangelical? — and this does not mean just sticking Bible verses into one’s conversation or asking everyone, ‘Are you saved?’ It means living by the Gospel, even with all our weaknesses and falls — living the Orthodox Faith. Many outsiders, just seeing that we try to lead a life different from the pagan and semi-pagan society around us, can become interested in the Faith just by this.”
To illustrate this last point, I will relate a few stories. In the early history of our brotherhood, some Orthodox pilgrims were on their way home from our monastery, when they stopped at a restaurant in Williams, California. Before the meal, they crossed themselves and prayed aloud. Some people at an adjacent table asked them what Faith they belonged to. They struck up a friendship with the Orthodox pilgrims, and went on to become Orthodox Christians themselves.
Just by doing such a simple things as making the sign of the Cross and praying, one can change the lives of those who are looking for something authentic in Christianity.
Here is another story which provides an even better example of what Fr. Seraphim said about “outsiders” becoming interested in the Orthodox Faith just by seeing us live that Faith.
About five years ago, a young mother in Santa Rosa, California was in a toy store with her two-year-old son. As she was walking around looking at things, she saw a woman older than herself, modestly dressed, who had come to the store with her teenaged son. The young mother noticed that there was something different about this woman and her son. They were calm, peaceful, not distracted; but it was their relationship that impressed her most of all. The older mother and her teenaged son obviously had a close relationship; the boy showed respect and consideration for his mother, and she was kind and loving to him. The younger woman thought to herself: That’s the kind of relationship I want with my son when he gets older. So she went up to the other woman and asked her,
“Do you go to a church?”
It so happened that the older woman was the wife of a priest, and her church was in Santa Rosa. She talked with the younger woman, told her about her church, and told her that there was an Orthodox bookstore just a few blocks away. The young woman went directly to the bookstore, which serves as an outreach center for the Orthodox Faith, and talked with the man who runs the store. She then started attending the church with her husband and son, and in time they all became Orthodox. They still attend the church regularly, and now have another boy in the family.
In discussing what it means to bear witness to our Faith, we should emphasize that, in all situations, we must act and speak with love. Christ told His disciples:
By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13:35).
We have the fullness of Truth, yes, but this Truth must be spoken and given in love, lest it be corrupted in the very manner in which it is presented. People will look for God in us, and if they see no love there, they will not recognize the presence of God, even if we know all the Orthodox dogmas and can recite Scripture verses and the Nicene Creed by heart.
Fr. Seraphim stressed this in one of his talks. He said:
“Being filled with the Gospel teaching and trying to live by it, we should have love and compassion for the miserable humanity of our days. Probably never have people been more unhappy than the people of our days, even with all the outward conveniences and gadgets our society provides us with. People are suffering and dying for the lack of God — and we can help give God to them. The love of many has truly grown cold in our days — but let us not be cold. As long as Christ sends us His Grace and warms our hearts, we do not need to be cold. If we are cold and indifferent; if our response to the need for a Christian answer to those who are miserable is only:
‘Who cares? Let someone else do it; I don’t feel like it’ (and I have heard Orthodox people say those very things!) — then we are the salt that has lost its savor and is good for nothing but to be thrown out (cf. Matt. 5:13).”‘
May these words warm our hearts, so that we will go forth and bear witness to the Orthodox Gospel with love — a love that flows from our relationship with Jesus Christ, and from the Grace He bestows on us in His Church.